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The acquittal of Parti Liyani: Power, privilege, and access to justice

This is the second special issue of We, The Citizens focused on Parti Liyani’s case and the questions it throws up about justice in Singapore. The first issue summed up the High Court judgment.

Following the relief of last week, Parti Liyani went to the State Courts today, where she was finally freed from her fifth and final charge.

Apart from the four charges of theft that had been brought against her in relation to items that the Liews claimed she’d stolen from them, there was an additional fifth charge pertaining to items that the police said were “reasonably suspected of being fraudulently obtained”.

Among the items listed on the charge sheet issued by the investigating officer, Tan Ru Long, were six ezLink cards, a pawn shop ticket, bags, wallets, and watches. The Liews did not claim that these items were theirs. Actually, no one is claiming that these items have been stolen from them.

The court had previously granted a discharge not amounting to an acquittal, but today the prosecution sought a discharge amounting to an acquittal, which was granted.

(Parti Liyani, her lawyer Anil Balchandani and supporters from HOME outside the State Courts today.)

Does this mean that Singapore’s justice system is working?

Parti’s case has attracted a lot of attention, and the High Court judge, Justice Chan Seng Onn, has also received praise for the acquittal and his detailed written judgment. Many have expressed relief that Parti has finally been vindicated and released from a nightmare case that has dragged on for years, causing distress and depriving her of income and employment.

“The (High Court) judge’s judgment goes through the facts very carefully. It sets out what the break in the chain of evidence is, and in that way, it is good to see that justice is both blind and that justice has been delivered,” said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, even as he urged people not to “prejudge” what went wrong in Parti’s case.

It’s worth celebrating a demonstration of our justice system working as it should, but the reality is that the happy result that’s snagged headlines only came about because of a remarkable confluence of factors.

It only happened because of Parti’s strength and resolve, the support she was able to get from and through an NGO like HOME, and the all-important pro bono representation from Anil Balchandani. If any of these factors had been missing, Parti could very well be in prison now, and the problems present within this case might never have fully surfaced.

This is why there is a lot more that needs to be said about power, inequality, and access to justice, particularly for marginalised communities like migrant workers, whose presence in Singapore is already precarious to begin with.

Marginalised and disempowered: migrant workers in Singapore

In a press conference called on 4 September (the day Parti was acquitted of the four theft charges), Jaya Anil Kumar, a case manager at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), pointed out that not every migrant worker is able to get the sort of legal representation that Parti has had. Similarly, not every migrant worker charged or convicted of an offence is able to locate a bailor, who has to be a Singaporean or at least a Permanent Resident.

In this sense, Parti can be considered as having been quite “fortunate” to have had both a bailor and a lawyer who took her case seriously enough to fight it all the way.

While the case was ongoing, Parti was stuck in Singapore with no right to work, which meant that she had no income, and wasn’t able to remit money back home. For many migrant workers, this would be a highly difficult situation to be trapped in, as they might be the main breadwinners for parents, siblings, and children in their home countries. Without an income, they’ll also have to rely on the support of NGOs like HOME to provide them with food and shelter.

“Consequently, by the time many migrant workers are presented with charges, they choose to plead guilty even if they are of the view that they are innocent of the charges that they are facing,” HOME wrote in a statement issued on 4 September.

“The time it takes for them to serve their sentence may be shorter than the time it takes to go through the court process.”

Imagine if Parti had had young children or heavier financial burdens back home that were entirely reliant on her remittances. Imagine if, daunted by the ordeal before her, she had decided to plead guilty early on, or if she’d given up after she was convicted. Then, despite issues with the police’s mishandling of the allegedly stolen items, despite problems with interrogations in which she hadn’t been provided with adequate interpretation, despite all the inconsistencies and “improper motive”, the Liews would have got their way with a domestic worker they had illegally deployed.

Even if you find the very thought of this horrific, it’s likely already happened many times before, with migrant workers who chose to plead guilty, or gave up on appeals, or simply didn’t have the funds, support, and legal counsel to put up a fight.

(Parti Liyani and her lawyer Anil Balchandani on 4 September. Photo by Grace Baey.)

Power and influence

During HOME’s 4 September press conference, Anil Balchandani talked about the challenges that the team had faced in defending and supporting Parti. While he only had a small amount of resources to fight the case, the Attorney-General’s Chambers had the resources of its institution to draw on, with two deputy public prosecutors involved, and the assistance of the police force who had carried out the investigation.

“The difficult part was not just facing the DPPs but also… receiving information or court-related documents very late,” he said, adding that he only got the photographs of the allegedly stolen items, and the video of the Liews unpacking the three boxes containing items they claimed were theirs, on the first day of the trial. Sifting through and analysing all these photos and the video took a remarkable amount of work, which had to be done with limited manpower, resources, and time.

During his time working on the case, Balchandani and his assistant were accused of harassing the Liew family. When they’d first picked up the case, they didn’t have an official list of witnesses, so they made some general calls to people who weren’t part of the charges to ask if they could interview them.

“The family then filed a police report against me and against my assistant… for harassment. And we were investigated. It took a whole year of that hanging over our heads before the police decided that there was no offence,” he said. Such accusations of harassment also had other implications; the Law Society could have taken disciplinary action. Even thought that fortunately didn’t happen, it was still something that Balchandani described as “unnecessary fall-out”.

On top of all this, the team also had to incur expenses for things such as flying out a witness — a friend of Parti’s who had given her some of the items the Liews claimed were stolen from them — from the Gulf with her nursing son. They had to do this twice, covering both transportation costs and accommodation. This was only possible because donations covered the costs. If these resources had not been available, Parti’s defence would have had to do without a key witness.

As someone who had once received over $20 million as a bonus in a single year (paywalled), costs such as airfare and accommodation for witnesses, administrative costs and other disbursements wouldn’t even have made a dent in Liew Mun Leong’s bank statement (not that he, as the accuser, would have had to pay them in any case). But for Parti, it was a minor miracle that all this came together so she could fight back.

For every vindicated Parti Liyani, there are other migrant workers — men and women — who are facing difficult and unfair choices. It is for them, and for those in other marginalised communities, that we have to keep pushing for better access to justice and better practices that address imbalances in power and privilege.

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The issues highlighted by this case have a serious impact on access to justice and fairness in Singapore. If you’re concerned by this case, please write to your Member of Parliament to get them to raise the issue and ask questions in Parliament. You can find out how to contact your MP here.